'America to Me': Meet OPRF Teacher Aaron Podolner

The physics teacher, whose strained relationship with student Jada Buford is central to her arc in the docuseries, talks about the feedback he's gotten and the lessons he's learned.
Courtesy of Starz
Physics teacher Aaron Podolner with student Jada Buford.

In Steve James' docuseries America to Me — which explores issues of race and class in education through the eyes of students and teachers at Oak Park and River Forest High School in the affluent Chicago suburb of Oak Park — there aren't, exactly, villains. There's the principal and superintendent, who are portrayed as being at times apathetic and dismissive to attempts by teachers and parents to address, with urgency, the persistent achievement gap between black and white students at the school. There are students and parents at rival high schools, whose level of racial sensitivity ranges from lacking to nonexistent, but they only appear sporadically. There's Deanna Paloian, the white varsity cheerleading coach whose approach to leading her nearly all-black squad doesn't sit well with some of her athletes. And there's Aaron Podolner.  

Podolner, who grew up in Oak Park and graduated from OPRF in 1996 before returning as an employee just four years later, is a Golden Apple-winning physics teacher. It's clear that he's thought a lot about issues of race, even going so far as to put together what he terms a "racial memoir" of his experiences growing up. Both his father and grandfather were heavily involved in the civil rights movement, and at one point he says that he considers it a part of his family's legacy to help his black students succeed (he and English teacher Jessica Stovall's attempts to establish a discussion group for faculty that want to do racial equity work above and beyond what is officially sanctioned by school administrators is a minor plotline in the series). But in his "clueless" — his word — attempts to win over one of his students, senior Jada Buford, he winds up being an avatar for a certain type of performative allyship that is all too familiar (no pun intended) to many black Americans.

Central to Podolner's arc in the series is his relationship with two black students, Buford and junior Charles Donaldson. Charles hates science but "loves" Podolner as a teacher, appreciates his attempts to liven up the dry subject matter, and isn't bothered by his frequent comments on race and black culture — comments that routinely make Buford very uncomfortable. For instance, he cites "bootylicious" as his preferred example of a portmanteau, cracks a joke about someone calling the cops to break up a party at Charles' house (the target of the joke is racist white people who call the police on black children for no reason, but considering the deadly serious consequences of certain such calls, not exactly a subject that everyone finds humorous) and makes more than one attempt to joke about black hairstyles. Each time Buford tells Podolner that she doesn't appreciate his approach, he comes off as dismissive or defensive.

In the later episodes, there are scenes where Podolner has moments of apparent self-reflection and growth, and in speaking with him it's clear that the process of reassessing his approach to Jada specifically and black students in general has continued after filming wrapped. Through the series, he says, "I saw myself making mistakes, I saw myself trying too hard, but I saw myself learning some lessons by the end. Of course, we're still like three weeks away from me learning some lessons! So that's a long time to wait while people are just [seeing] the mistakes — which I fully recognize as mistakes."

For the most part, he seems to view the negative feedback he's received as an opportunity to keep learning from his mistakes, though it's clear that certain criticism has stung. For instance, he calls the fact that OPRF Principal Nate Rouse tweeted out a link to a Chicago Magazine episode recap entitled "Let's Talk About Mr. Podolner" — which didn't pull punches — "hard to take."

It's also clear that he's struggling with the idea of abandoning what has been, according to him, an effective means of building relationships with his black students over his two decades as a teacher. When asked whether Jada was the first to be vocal about her negative reaction to his jocular approach, he says she was. "There's a part of me, a more immature part of me, that wants to be upset with her because she made such a big deal of it," he admits. "But on the other hand, I have to be thankful because maybe a lot of kids felt that way, and they never felt comfortable telling me."

Last week Podolner sat down with THR to talk about how he's dealt with the criticism he's received, what scenes he wishes had been included in the series that weren't, and that coffee cup scene.   

One of my main disappointments when watching America to Me was that, like, as a member of the press I got to binge it in two sittings, and I think it lends itself to binge-viewing. But for most people, they have to watch week to week. I think more than anyone else — everyone has an arc — but the way you appear at first is a little bit, whatever —

Clueless? (Laughs.)

Yeah. But I'm curious about some of the stuff that you've gotten dinged for — like when you smelled Jada's coffee. How much self-awareness did you have in the moment of how that might come off?

So what we first saw was this kind of supercut of all of our scenes. So it was nice, like, in 35 minutes I saw myself making mistakes, I saw myself trying too hard, but I saw myself learning some lessons by the end. But of course, we're still like three weeks away from me learning some lessons! So that's a long time to wait while people are just [seeing] the mistakes — which I fully recognize as mistakes. And then when I saw the whole thing. And maybe this is just — chalk this up to cluelessness or lack of self-awareness — I didn’t think it would be as big of a deal as people have made it out to be. So it has surprised me how much people have zeroed in on my actions. But then zeroing in actually has helped me to see more. I mean the criticism I think that's most appropriate are [of] the scenes where I didn't listen well to people of color that I had asked for feedback, and that's something that has very much been on my mind in thinking about how to do it differently in the future. One thing that, in terms of the scenes that were included, I did ask for them not to include the coffee cup scene because I didn't think that had to do with race. I just thought the coffee cup scene just made me look like an ass — I didn't see what that added to the story. The other thing is, I had spent all this time that year supporting Jess and being part of the pilot for the Woven program [a teacher-feedback program Stovall developed aimed at eliminating racial predictability in academic achievement]. So I wish there was more of that in the final cut.

So before you saw any of the episodes Steve and his crew sent you guys all of your footage? And was this footage, like, this was the final cut?

I think it's gone through a fair amount of iterations since then. They did have this big sequence of me helping Charles with his science fair project and then being at the science fair and stuff like that. So yeah, I had wished that made it to the actual on-air part because I think that would show just the extent that I was willing to go to to get black students involved in science.

What kind of discussions did you have when you saw the footage? Like, just specifically about the coffee cup scene. You saw that and you're like, "This looks bad for me," and you go to Steve and say what?

I mean I knew at that point I can't demand that anything be removed, so I wasn't under any illusion. I just didn’t feel like it added to the theme, which is looking at things with a racial lens, and in fact maybe it does the opposite: Maybe it puts a racial lens on something that wasn't racial.

Like, that's something that you would do with any student?

Right. And I don't even know if this makes me sound defensive, but I probably have done that joke 100 times where I essentially imply that there's something suspicious in a drink. It's just a joke I've done. The bad part about it is that I did not respond well to her response. That's the part that I take total responsibility for.

Was there anything else? You said, "Can you guys cut the scene?" and what did they say?

I didn't really press the point. I guess I felt confident enough that people would see in general that I had learned from mistakes. And even though that scene in episode four that didn't go well, I felt like people would notice that I explicitly said that what I tried to do with her didn't work. I don’t know, I guess people didn't see me recognizing that as enough.

Are you talking about the one where Charles and Jada come back after having read your racial memoir.

Right.

I read it, and it's very obvious that you are sincere and that you've devoted more thought to this than many, and it's been on your mind forever, and you’re more honest about it than most white people would be willing to be. I think what Jada said was, like, you seem to have a consciousness around these issues, but how you are in class isn't reflective of what's in the memoir. What was your reaction when she said that? That struck me as very accurate.

You remember that scene in the first episode where Charles is doing what we call doing "the dozens," sort of roasting his friends at the lunch table, right? That was a hundred percent my Oak Park experience. That's the sort of thing I was comfortable doing. And you don't get to see this on the screen, but there's been lots of times that I've bonded with kids over the ability to joke around, but I absolutely did not recognize quick enough that that was not gonna work with Jada. So that was my fault for not seeing faster that what had worked in the past was not working with her. And I think one of the good criticisms of me that I've read is that I was too comfortable in making these assumptions. And maybe it's 'cause I'm 40 now, you know? Like, my shtick really worked when I was 22. Maybe it is a function of age and people being a little more hesitant to see my intentions as sincere.

Yeah, I think that's definitely something, too. As a fellow gangly, glasses-wearing, Oak Park white dude here, I would definitely think that I would be able to get away with a lot more of that familiarity being a youth. You're like a dad now.

Right. (Laughs.) Or just, I mean I think [students] would reasonably start the interactions with more reservations and more distance. So if I jump across that and act too familiar — I definitely see that criticism, and I understand it now more than ever.

What kind of resolution did it come to between you guys? Have you talked since?

(Laughs.) I'll answer that on two levels. One thing that Jada wanted was for me to stand at the board and just explain problems and not make cultural references and not joke around. You saw, you know, there were even scenes where I would talk to Charles about Lauryn Hill and she would roll her eyes. So even that bothered her. But I'm not gonna do that. I'm not gonna stand at the board and lecture and do problems, because I think that's not great for most students. But I did spend multiple times a week helping her outside of class. And I'm not the sort of person who gives up easily, so I kept trying to win her over. I don't think I ever did, but I did want it to be clear that I was there for her and supported her in her physics learning.

When did you start at the school as a teacher?

2000. I was 22.

Is Jada the first student that you ran into who really wasn't buying what you were selling?

So here's the thing. So there's a part of me, a more immature part of me, that wants to be upset with her because she made such a big deal of it. But on the other hand I have to be thankful because maybe a lot of kids felt that way, and they never felt comfortable telling me. So I do have to remind myself to be thankful that she felt comfortable saying how she felt about being in my class. It's kind of hard that that's all on film, and kind of hard that I didn't handle that initial conversation well, but it was still important for me to hear.

Have any former students reached out to you?

So I've been in touch with former students, mainly black females, actually, you know, and the instant I started getting this criticism I reached out to them. I was like, "Hey, can you give me your perspective? Can you tell me more about how this affected you?" And for a lot of them it was like, "Everything you did was great but don't talk about hair!" That was the main takeaway.

That's fair.

Right. I have gotten a lot of feedback that's been kind of paralyzing and confusing, but to me the feedback that I've gotten that's been most useful is when somebody told me, "Hey, just wait till someone mentions something themselves." And I think that's a really great way to look at it. I'm not gonna just mention someone is black or something about their blackness or something about their hair, right? I've learned that very clearly now. But if someone does bring it up, then that’s when I listen and reflect, and I can move on from there. And I think that was maybe the best advice I've gotten since the film has aired.

You've been at the school for a very long time, very little has been done on this issue. What do you think this documentary is going to accomplish in the community, the school or at large? And what do you hope it will accomplish?

I would say it's already elevated the discussion. I have had better discussions with my wife and with my kids and with my family about race since the documentary came out, so I think all of that is good. The part that remains to be seen is if it will change the outcome. I think for a black child or a black family, knowing that white people are talking about this, I can only think that that matters if results change. So do I know that there will be a new outcome as a result of this? I can't say that. I do know that there's these conversations, and that's good but that's not enough.

America to Me airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on Starz.